Kicking the Bucket List

I probably don’t have to explain the concept of a bucket list to you. But just in case you somehow haven’t seen the movie or run across the term previously, a bucket list is plain and simply if a little awkwardly described by Merriam-Webster as “a list of things that one has not done before but wants to do before dying.” Advocates of bucket lists offer many reasons for having one. Take, for example, this advice from life coach Celestine Chua (“Call me Celes, please.”) on her Personal Excellence website:

If you don’t live your days by personal goals and plans, chances are you spend most of your time caught up in a flurry of day-to-day activities. Ever felt that your days are passing you by without any tangible output to speak of? What did you accomplish in the past 3 months? What are your upcoming goals for the next 3 months? Look at the things you did and the things you’re planning to do next — Do they mean anything to you if you are to die today?

Celes then provides 101 suggestions to get you on your bucket list way. These can be lumped in two broad categories: achievements such as learning a language and losing weight and experiences such as seeing the world and bungie jumping. She also provides, very helpfully, resources to help you realize each bucket goal.

This is all well and good. In fact, having a bucket list sounds wonderful in many respects, especially in the way it forces you to think beyond and even escape at times your grindvironment (sometimes characterized as the “same old same old”). But there’s a downside, too. Having a bucket list forces you to be hyperaware of the “die” part of “before I die.” This is equivalent to going to sites like The Death Clock, as I just did, filling in the information, and learning that my personal day of death may well be June 6, 2025, and that I have approximately 250 million seconds left to live (the countdown displays and if you’re really morbid, you can watch it tick, tick, tick down). Another DC site thinks I have even less (1741 days, 4 hours, 24 minutes, 59 seconds, which ticks to zero on April 22, 2022). Here’s hoping they’re both wrong. The upshot, though, is that if you have a long list (101 seems long) and take a “must do” attitude toward each item rather than “be nice to do,” then the bucket list may increase your stress rather than provide ways to relieve it.

Perhaps the saner, less maddening approach to the “Before I Die” imperative is to take one thing at a time. One person trying to help out with this is Candy Chang, an artist who works in public spaces. Candy created her first “Before I Die” mural, I guess you would call it, in New Orleans. It’s basically a giant chalkboard with the title “Before I die” (BID) and then as many “Before I die I want to _________” prompts on it as the area allows. (As in the photo on the left, taken by our friend and epic relocation odyessian Kristian Gallagher in Ashville, North Carolina. Check out her extremely cool website to see where she’s at and what she’s up to.) Chang tell us that BID is “a participatory public art project that invites people to contemplate death, reflect on life, and share their personal aspirations in public.” There are now over 2,000 of these walls in 70 countries, including Iran, China, Brazil, Kazakhstan, and South Africa. Wherever this wall appears, it reveals “the community’s longings, anxieties, joys, and struggles [and] explores how public space can cultivate self-examination and empathy among neighbors and compassionately prepare us for death and grief. It has also inspired dozens of remixes that offer new ways to engage with the people around us.”

I like the BID idea because the wall only gives you space to write one thing. It’s also a chalkboard, which means once you complete that one thing, you could, theoretically, go back and erase it and enter a new one. If it’s one thing we (I at least) can use in life it’s simplification. This approach also changes the way we (I) view death. I have this idea that the Big D (and I don’t mean divorce) is something like those moments when a phalanx of archers in the endless Tudor/York wars (or name your European historical battle of choice) loose a swarm of arrows high into the air to rain down upon their hapless opponents. If you’re one of the latter, which we all are, you have two choices. You could look up and see the sky darkened with deadly darts (too much?) headed your way and know that one of them probably has your name on it. Or you can choose not to look up and focus instead on what’s immediately ahead of you, say, an incredibly beautiful willow tree or key deer or redhead or orchid or Denny’s Grand Slam or whatever and leave the terminal arrows to fall where and when they may. For me, it’s an easy decision. Put another way, if you don’t look up, the sky can’t fall, right? Right.

(Photo Credit: “Before I Die” wall in Ashville, North Carolina. ©2017, Kristian Gallagher. Used by permission.)